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Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen is facing the same daunting challenge he encountered when he returned to his alma mater four years ago, when the Terrapins were coming off five consecutive losing seasons and were entrenched in the ACC cellar.
Friedgen quickly turned around Maryland's fortunes, leading the Terps to three straight winning seasons, 31 victories and three bowl games. But last season, everything came crashing down. Maryland didn't play in a bowl game, finishing 5-6. It was embarrassed in a nationally televised loss at Virginia Tech, and its offense -- Friedgen's pride and joy -- was woefully ineffective.
Rebuilding his team for a second time could be more difficult. Friedgen has three quarterbacks at his disposal but all are inexperienced. The offensive line must be rebuilt, and there are no proven performers at running back and wide receiver. Maryland might have the best group of linebackers in the ACC, but several starters must be replaced on the defensive line and in the secondary. "I think our players got the hunger back. They did not like being home from a bowl game," Friedgen said.
Friedgen hoped Jordan Steffy and Sam Hollenbach would battle for the quarterback job during spring practice, but Steffy missed most of the drills with arthritis in his knee. If Steffy isn't healthy by preseason camp, Friedgen will probably turn to Hollenbach, who nearly left the team last year before starting against Wake Forest in the season finale.
An improved running game would certainly help. The Terrapins rushed for 1,172 fewer yards last season than they did in 2003. Leading rusher Sammy Maldonado has graduated, and senior Josh Allen tore his ACL against Wake Forest. Senior Mario Merrills, who ran for 124 yards and one touchdown last season, pulled ahead of the other tailbacks during spring practice. Merrills bench-presses close to 400 pounds and runs the 40-yard dash in less than 4.46 seconds.
The Terrapins lost Rich Parson and Steve Suter, two of their most productive receivers, to graduation. Senior Derrick Fenner, who caught 35 passes and two touchdowns in '04, needs to play a bigger role this season. Tight end Vernon Davis, a big target with excellent speed and hands, is the No. 1 option in the passing game.
Maryland lost All-ACC guard C.J. Brooks and dependable center Kyle Schmitt. Left tackle Stephon Heyer, who is coming back from knee surgery, is one of the best pass blockers in the country and will anchor the rebuilt unit.
Maryland faces a tall order in replacing defensive end Shawne Merriman, who left after his junior season for the NFL Draft. The Terrapins also lost rush end Kevin Eli, and tackle Rob Armstrong has been bothered by a back injury. Defensive tackle Conrad Bolston moved to defensive end, and end Trey Covington impressed coaches during spring practice.
D'Qwell Jackson might be as good as any linebacker who has played at Maryland. He has performed fabulously since replacing All-American E.J. Henderson in 2003, racking up 259 tackles over the past two seasons. Jackson missed spring practice after undergoing wrist surgery but should be ready by preseason camp.
The secondary must be rebuilt after the loss of three starters, including lockdown cornerback Domonique Foxworth and hard-hitting safety Chris Kelley. Senior Gerrick McPhearson is the fastest cornerback in school history and an All-ACC sprinter on the school's track team. Junior Josh Wilson, another sprinter, is the starter at boundary cornerback.
Adam Podlesh, who might be the best punter in the country, returns after averaging 43.7 yards per kick last season. But Maryland must replace record-setting kicker Nick Novak and Suter, the ACC's all-time leading punt returner. Redshirt freshman Obi Egekeze and Dan Ennis will battle for the placekicking job.
Rebuilding Maryland in one season will be a difficult task for a frustrated Friedgen. The Terrapins are very young -- they have more than 60 players with three years or more of eligibility remaining -- and because of graduation and injuries, they'll be forced to start unproven players at quarterback and tailback. But the defense and special teams are good enough to keep them competitive in most games. As bad as things went last season, Maryland was only a few plays away from playing in the postseason for the fourth consecutive season.